- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 24, 2020

The coronavirus has accomplished what the occasional diplomatic row between the U.S. and former adversaries like Vietnam couldn’t do: stop the search for the remains of fallen U.S. military members.

The Defense Department agency whose sole mission is to track down fallen soldiers and prisoners of war from past conflicts said Tuesday it has suspended search missions because of the deadly pandemic. Officials with the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) said the global pandemic has had a “significant impact” on their worldwide operations.

“COVID-19 dynamics have forced us to radically alter our operations,” said Kelly McKeague, director of DPAA, said in a statement, “but keeping our teams safe, here and abroad, is paramount.”

The Pentagon is scrambling to confront the COVID-19 pandemic. Major drills have been scaled back or canceled, curfews have been imposed public recruiting offices have been shut down, and new cases pop up in deployments across the world.

On Tuesday alone, four allied troops in Afghanistan tested positive for the virus and the Navy announced its first case discovered on a deployed warship.

The deployed ship is the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt, which had three of its sailors test infected by the virus and has flown the three off the vessel and quarantined everyone who had contact with them aboard it.

The tests came back positive shortly after a stop in Danang, though the Navy didn’t directly say the Vietnamese port city was where the virus was acquired.

All DPAA field missions this month have either been wrapped up or terminated earlier than planned, with staffers returning to their home base. All future missions — at least through early June — have been postponed or canceled, officials said.

“We are focused on bringing our teams home safely and concurrently, adjusting our daily operations to minimize possible exposure to COVID-19 while keeping the health and safety of our personnel and their families at the forefront,” said Rear Adm. Darius Banaji, DPAA’s deputy director for operations.

Even with the coronavirus-caused suspension, agency officials said they remain committed to accomplishing what they called “the solemn mission” of accounting for all missing American service members and providing answers to families.

The suspension could prove just an extra burden for some families of the missing troops, said Nicholas Disano with the Falls Church, Virginia-based National League of POW/MIA Families.

“They could see it as just another setback among many or they could be livid about it,” Mr. Disano said. “This is a priority to them.”

Mr. Disano is an archivist with the advocacy organization, which focuses primarily on the Vietnam War era. That conflict, which spilled into several countries in Southeast Asia, currently has just over 1,500 U.S. military members still listed as missing in action.

The agency has canceled search and investigation missions at battle sites in Europe, as well as postponed assignments that would have sent teams to more recent locations in Laos and Cambodia.

POW/MIA search missions have typically been resistant to outside political pressures, even occurring during trade embargoes imposed by the U.S., Mr. Disano said.

“These have always been separate humanitarian efforts. They’ve always gone on,” he said.

Other than a privately funded underwater investigation off the coast of Latvia, there are no search missions occurring anywhere, DPAA officials said.

“All personnel are home and in 14-day self-isolation,” agency officials said in a statement.

Future meetings in Miami and Little Rock for POW/MIA relatives to brief them about the search efforts have also been scrubbed, with information now being provided by phone. It’s the first time the agency has ever canceled a Family Member Update and it was done to protect the families from possible virus exposure, officials said.

“We are not happy with the current circumstance because nothing can be done,” Mr. Disano said.

While his organization is focused on the POW/MIA issue, Mr. Disano said he only heard about DPAA suspending the search efforts due to the coronavirus “through the grapevine.”

“I don’t think they were very public about it,” he said.

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